St. Patrick - Not the Guy You Thought He Was

Before you go diving into a pint of green beer to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, you might want to pause for a moment and reflect a bit on ‘yer man,’ Patrick.

While he may be the patron saint of Ireland, he was NOT the first to bring Christianity to this island. That distinction goes to a bishop named Palladius who came from Gaul and mostly hung out in Leinster when he got here, setting up churches in that small area. He was sent by the pope to preach to ‘the Irish who believe in Christ.’ But Palladius had zip when it came to PR, so people pretty much forgot about him. In fact, if Palladius and Patrick were 21st century authors, Palladius would be the guy who published his own e-book and sold 12 copies to his family members. Patrick would be 50-shades of E.L. James.

How did Patrick get such outstanding publicity in the 5th century? He made up stories, of course.

According to research conducted by Cambridge University professor, Roy Flechner, ‘The traditional story that Patrick was kidnapped from Britain, forced to work as a slave, but managed to escape and reclaim his status, is likely to be fiction. The story was instigated by Patrick himself in the letters he wrote, because this is how he wanted to be remembered.’

Even more interesting, it’s probable that Patrick owned slaves and became a slave trader in Ireland. This is based, in part, on early medieval Irish legal texts which regulate the church’s ownership of slaves. Since there was no monetary economy in Ireland at that time, slave trading was the main basis for the economy. Slaves were also, frequently, used for sex. And, yes, the church was a major slave owner.

Flechner adds, ‘Escaped slaves had no legal status and could be killed or recaptured by anyone. The probability Patrick managed to cross from his alleged place of captivity in western Ireland back to Britain undetected, is small.’

A 7th century cleric wrote that Patrick took a liking to a boy he had converted to Christianity and named Benignus. The boy, ‘took Patrick’s feet between his hands and would not sleep with his father and mother, but wept unless he would be allowed to sleep with Patrick.’ They had a close, lifelong companionship, and Benignus succeeded Patrick as bishop of Armagh.

Another story about yer man Patrick that’s really more symbolism than fabrication is the one about driving the snakes out of Ireland. Since there never were any snakes here, this one is in reference to the fact that Patrick led a fight to have Druid priests and priestesses expelled from the country or killed. His main gripe was that Druids worshipped a Mother Goddess. He seems to have forgotten, their Goddess was his God’s mother. But, of course, Patrick wasn’t the first to wipe out the indigenous culture of a country through religious imperialism.

No matter how you celebrate this green holiday, you might want to follow Patrick’s lead the next time you have to compose your own bio. Maybe add in a little snippet about how you were captured by pirates before you managed to drive all the duck-billed platypuses out of lower Manhattan. You could get centuries of good publicity out of it.